November 22, 2019

How to Create a Feedback Culture

A photograph of Kathryn Christie.

There’s so much to love about the end of the year. From holiday cheer to dusting snow, it’s hard to feel anything but joyous. For many employees, there’s just one catch: annual performance reviews and receiving feedback. At the best of times, they tolerate them, and at the worst, they come to work with knots in their stomachs.

Before you start cursing your organization for loathing reviews, it’s good to remember that we all come by this honestly. We are built to fear feedback. Our human instinct is to be part of the group. We’re subconsciously biased against anything that could cause the group to reject us. Even positive feedback causes many of us to cringe.

So, what’s the problem? As leaders in high-growth organizations, we need a team that can grow and iterate regularly, not just after their performance reviews. As Adam Grant says in a recent Trust Issues podcast called Give me Feedback, “part of achieving excellence is never being satisfied with yesterday’s performance.” This quote surfaces how critical feedback is for growth. In the podcast, Grant emphasizes the need for continuous feedback in a world that is changing so quickly. The sheer notion of excellence is evolving daily, and so we must too.

The sheer notion of excellence is evolving daily, and so we must too.

I would argue that the need for continuous feedback is even greater in high-growth companies, given the pace of change. However, creating an environment where employees willingly give and receive continuous feedback can seem like a mountain to climb. Here are a few ways to help you take the first step towards creating a feedback culture as part of your performance management efforts.

Earning trust

In the podcast, the host, Rachel Botsman, shares her disdain for the phrase “building trust” because it seems like something that is fixed and needs no attention once you have built it [editor’s note: we’re guilty of using this phrase ourselves in our materials on trust]. On the contrary, she believes that trust is a “state” that must be continuously earned, which rings true in a culture of feedback.

Team members must trust that the feedback they are receiving is to help them improve, not to diminish their work. They must trust that constructive feedback will not uncover poor performance, but instead will identify opportunities for growth. In these contexts, fear is the enemy of trust. If your team fears that any critical or constructive feedback received will negatively impact their progression or opportunities at the organization, they will actively avoid it.

Think back to group projects in school when we were asked to rate our peers on their contributions. Knowing that the peer ratings impacted each other’s grades, more often than not, we would rate everyone 5/5 in fear of the consequences of honesty. We need to ensure that this is not the case in our organizations, or we’ll continue to hear “good work!” echoing through the hallways as we stunt our growth potential.

Psychological safety and a culture of feedback

Creating an atmosphere where it’s ok to share feedback leads us on nicely to the concept of psychological safety: “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” I.e., an environment where there is no fear of consequences for sharing opinions. Creating an atmosphere of psychological safety is paramount to a strong culture of continuous feedback and helps us share honest feedback in real-time.

Creating an atmosphere of psychological safety is paramount to a strong culture of continuous feedback and helps us share honest feedback in real-time.

Both the people providing and the people soliciting constructive feedback must feel safe to share candid, transparent information without fear of repercussions. Your team may be thinking: “if I am honest in my 360 feedback to my manager, will this impact my performance review?” or “ If I provide candid feedback to the leadership team, will this impact my progression at the organization?” The slightest perception of repercussions can send a wave of fear through the organization and break down any trust that you have tried to create.

How to get started on your feedback culture

So how do we do this in practice? Whenever challenged with a people problem, I turn to one of my favorite concepts in psychology: reinforcement theory. Essentially, what gets reinforced gets repeated. Simple as that. Here are some steps that will help you enable a company culture of continuous feedback by leveraging trust, psychological safety and reinforcement.

  1. Talk about it at every level: To get your feedback culture off the ground, you’ll need buy-in at every level of the organization. Explain what you are trying to encourage, outline the objectives of the initiative and do it often. Use time at all-hands meetings, have managers share in their 1:1 check-ins, share resources (An Everyone Culture is a great option), train people on how to give and receive feedback and be open to questions and concerns. Peer feedback is as important as feedback from managers.
  2. Role model it at every level: Another great way to demonstrate psychological safety is to show your team how to give and receive feedback in a way that is development-oriented. In the podcast, Adam Grant shares an incredible tip for leaders to show that there will be no consequences: Share your past experiences of getting critical feedback and how much you enjoyed it. It’s compelling evidence that you are not only open to receiving constructive feedback, but you also appreciate it.
  3. Reinforce and recognize it: There are two components of reinforcement theory that we can leverage here: rewards to encourage behavior and consequences to extinguish behavior. The former – a.k.a. positive reinforcement – is often the best place to start. Ensure that employees are recognized and rewarded for providing useful constructive feedback to their peers, leaders and the organization. You can also leverage negative reinforcement by challenging people to improve the feedback that they are providing. Adam Grant suggests that if you ask for feedback and someone responds, “That was great,” you should respond with “thank you, and what could have made it better?” Your response reinforces that you’re open to receiving constructive feedback and helps them learn how to give it more effectively.

How do you know whether it’s working?

As you start (or continue) your journey to developing a culture of continuous feedback, here are some leading indicators to show that it’s working:

  • Employees are no longer surprised at review time. This is one of the main signs that employees are giving and receiving regular feedback. If they go through their review with you and nothing is a surprise, it means they’ve already heard it and are working on it. Ideal!
  • Employees look forward to review time. This goes hand in hand with the first bullet, but if you are truly becoming a feedback culture, employees will get excited about hearing your thoughts in even more detail and finding new ways to improve.
  • Employee performance is steady throughout the year. Often, performance surges at the beginning of the year dips around the middle and then surges again leading into the end of the year as reviews/promotions/salary changes are within sight. If employees are receiving consistent feedback throughout the year on their strengths and areas for growth, performance should be more steady and less cyclical.
  • Employee engagement scores increase. As employees feel like they are being rewarded and challenged more regularly, engagement scores should increase across the board, particularly in categories related to development and relationships at work, showing the positive impact of a feedback culture. If you don’t yet, I recommend doing pulse surveys regularly to keep an eye on these metrics and see how things change as you start new initiatives.

I hope this helps you to drive continuous growth within your organizations! Focus on consistently earning the trust of your team, allow them a safe space to be intellectually honest and support those who are doing a fantastic job at driving improvement. If you get it right, it will help your team to view both giving and receiving feedback as a core part of a growth mindset.

For more on trust and its implications, I’d recommend starting with our CEO’s Guide to Trust.

Growth insights
in your inbox

Join our community of thousands of tech entrepreneurs to get actionable insights from our monthly newsletter.